The Rebel Child of Ballet
A look into modern dance’s four founding females
We start our exploration with a little history to set the scene:
Ballet dominated the dance world up until the 1900s. It is an extremely codified dance technique, taking considerable time and practice to master. Originally a dance for noblemen performed by noblemen, classical ballet through the ages has kept much of the style and pomp of the kings. Thin, beautiful ballerinas poised like angels on tip toe, dancing their way through trials and troubles, with a gallant prince by their side. Elegant costumes, elaborate stories, beautiful sets, the Grande Pas de Deux to showcase technique. Products of romantic and classical ballet, these characteristics have come to define ballet. In the late 1800s and early 1900s dancers began to feel caged by this definition of ballet. Ballet was about perfection, mastering techniques to tell fantasy stories. For many dancers this did not meet the need for individual expression. Many dancers had moved to vaudeville, performing skirt dances were movement was accentuated by the use of flowing skirts, which, although less strict than ballet, still did not provide dancers with room for individual creative exploration nor expression.
Now for our fabulous four:
Loie Fuller, a former skirt dancer, broke this trend in 1891 when she took skirt dancing to a new level by experimenting with the effect of light on translucent silk costumes. She began a career of creative exploration to create pleasing visual effects by experimenting how light, fabric, and movement interact. Untrained in formal dance techniques, her movement was mainly focused on using the arms to move flowing fabric in an aesthetically pleasing way.
This video recording of Loie Fuller from 1896 exemplifies her experimentation with light and fabric. Notice the dancing is not elaborate and the focus is on the fabric and light.
Her name was Isadora Duncan, an American born dancer, and in 1899 she moved to London to begin performing on her own for the first time. Dressed in a simple Greek tunic that became her trademark she began performing miniature dance dramas at the social gatherings of the dance-interested elite. Leaving the tutu, pointe shoe, and corset behind, Duncan brought to stage movement inspired by nature and what is natural, incorporating everyday movements like running, skipping, and jumping. One audience member remembers her: ‘Running legato, staccato, hopping, skipping, bouncing off both legs on the spot, or travelling, also skipping with the working leg very bent, touching the supporting leg.’ She left behind the elaborate sets and costumes that were dominating ballet at that time to focus more on the individual dancer and expressing emotions and dreams common to all humans. She was heavily influenced by Greek dance which she saw as natural and free. In a speech she gave on her dance philosophy, Duncan said,
“the dance of the future will have to become again a high religious art as it was with the Greeks. For art which is not religious is not art, is mere merchandise.”
She was the first dancer to develop a philosophy behind her dance and wanted her dance to have a high moral purpose. Her dances were a surprise to audiences used to ballet and she was not well received in America, spending most of her time in Europe where she was well received, thanks to the ongoing expressionist movement which was using art to express emotion, moving away from realism and using abstract methods to portray emotional experiences.
We can experience the spirit of Isadora first hand with this tribute to her work: The dance, choreographed by Sir. Frederick Ashton’s is called “Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan.” Ashton choreographed this dance in memory of Isadora Duncan, who he saw perform live. It takes us through her life, using her technique, and based on dances she created. We show it here because recordings of the time are difficult to see (although in this one you can get a feel for her early beginnings performing in the social gatherings of rich, upper class women):
Yet this performance beautifully shows Duncan’s style and life.
Ashton says of Duncan that, “ She was a marvelous mover. She ran wonderfully. Even when she was galumphing around she was still impressive. She had a marvelous tragic impact and she had enormous grace. She had a quality I can only describe by saying that when she moved she left herself behind.”
This piece exhibits her use of natural movements (watch the floor work in the beginning, the runs, and skips). The movement is very human, full of emotion: joy, fear. Also notice the use of the scarf, Duncan like Fuller loved using scarves.
Duncan was not the only dancer to be influenced by foreign cultures at the time. The third pioneer of modern dance, a contemporary to Fuller and Duncan, was Ruth St. Denis. Like the others she got her start in vaudeville, yet one day she saw a poster for Egyptian Deities Cigarettes featuring an Egyptian goddess that changed her life. This striking image inspired her to use oriental cultures as a source material for her dances.
Her first famous dance, Radha, was performed in 1905 and was her interpretation of Indian culture, it told the story of a young girl who was loved by the god Krishna.
Calling them “translations” these dancers were her interpretation of these cultures, now labeled as pseudo-exotic her dances fascinated an American public very interested in oriental culture. Most people at the time did not have the money or means to travel the world, so when St. Denis presented her interpretation of these cultures from her experiences audiences were simply fascinated and knew too little to criticize her considerable use of artistic liberty.
In 1911 St. Denis met dancer Ted Shawn and they began and artistic and personal relationship. A few years later in 1915 the two formed their own dance school Denishawn in Los Angeles, California. At Denishawn students were trained in their dance teachers’ shoeless version of ballet, ethinic and folk dances, the Dalcroz concept of eurhythmics (were movement is used to teach music), and Delsarte exercise (a set of gestures and movements used to help actors convey emotions) while also attending classes in dance history and philosophy. The school produced many famous dancers who furthered modern dance, including Martha Graham.
Here we see a piece St. Denis danced which interprets Indian culture. Notice her use of costumes, set pieces, and music to establish her oriental setting.
The Denishawn school produced perhaps the most well known modern dancer, Martha Graham. Her work was a rebellion against that of her teachers.’ She saw the dances she learned there as having only entertainment value, but she wanted her own work to speak to audiences, making them think or open their eyes to the world around them. Like her teachers at Denishawn, Graham was inspired by many cultures, histories, and stories ranging from the Native American culture in the desert southwest (Primitive Mysteries, 1931) to the pioneers pushing west across America (Frontier, 1935) to classic Greek mythology (Cave of the Heart, 1946; Night Journey, 1947). Yet unlike her teachers, she uses these exotic elements to relate the human experience, bringing Native American rituals to the stage, celebrating the courage of the early pioneers, and using Greek myths to explore the human experience of coping with emotions like jealousy, fear, and self-doubt. In these dances she applies the use of a technique she creates based on contraction and release. Inspired by how humans breathe, Graham uses contraction based movements to represent negative emotions were we withdraw into ourselves from fear, sorrow, or seclusion. Movements based on release portray more positive emotions like joy and excitement. Like Duncan she does not shy away from floorwork, which is a direct contradiction of ballet, which puts its dancers on tip-toe to give the illusion of weightlessness. Duncan and Graham embrace gravity and thus floorwork, because it expresses humanity – a bond with the earth. In the beginning these elements gave her choreography a very harsh and angular look, which over the years becomes softer as she incorporated elements like the spiral. With this at the basis of her technique, she codified modern dance, which became a technique just like ballet, with its own rules and requirement of rigorous training for mastery.
Here we see some of Graham’s more famous works, watch her work progress, losing some of its harshness, pay attention to the use of contraction, release, and floorwork:
This Graham’s first piece for a group, entitled Heretic. This dance about
the ostracism of an individual from a group is a good example of Graham’s rejection of the
decadence and beauty that surrounded Denishawn and ballet productions at the
time. Dancers appeared homely and movements were simple, staccato, and focused
on a technique of contraction and release that is Graham’s signature way to portray
The introduction to the piece shows how Graham connects to her audience, abstractly expressing emotions in a way that touches her audience.
Night Journey (1946)
Here Graham tells the story of Oedipus Rex, one of her most famous uses of Greek mythology.
As we end this glimpse into ‘the making of’ modern dance, we leave you with a few:
Words from the Wise
Man must speak, then sing, then dance.
The speaking is the brain, the thinking man.
The singing is the emotion.
The dancing is the Dionysian ecstasy which carries away all.
– Isadora Duncan
I see dance being used as communication between body and soul, to express what is too deep to find for words.
– Ruth St. Denis
Dance is the only art in which we ourselves are the stuff of which it is made.
– Ted Shawn
Dance is a song of the body. Either of joy or pain.
– Martha Graham
…But the Dance Lives On:
Modern Day Dances Influenced by the Early Modern Dancers:
Here is a piece from 2007 that is a modern day take on Loie Fuller’s play with light and costumes:
Here a Parisian designer, Vionnet celebrates its centennial anniversary by showing off its designs in a dance piece in the style of Isadora Duncan. Madeleine Vionnet and Duncan were contemporaries, with Vionnet drawing inspiration for her designs from Duncan. This show celebrates this historic, creative synergy that has survived a century, merging aspects of Duncan’s dance style with 21st century social dance.